In the dawn of television’s golden age, you were lucky to get one Picasso of profanity per show.
Armando Iannucci’s In The Thick of It featured human swear jar Malcolm Tucker, the abusive spin doctor who “took the fine art of the soul-puncturing put-down to a new high.” His blue streaks ranged from cerulean to cornflower, “with all the charm of a rotting teddy bear at a graveside,” “like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra,” who’s “so dense light bends around him.”
Now, though, we have a series on which every character uses scatological terms like Bob Ross used oil paint. Succession, the HBO show loosely based on the Murdoch family’s backstabbing and bloodletting, is the evolution of the ornate insult comedy.
No member of the Roy family ever misses a chance to eviscerate their flesh and blood — so how do you keep all the insulters straight? The show’s creator has a simple rule. As revealed in this juicy New Yorker profile of Jesse Armstrong,
An insult “should be at least as expressive of who the character uttering it is as it is eloquent, or ineloquent, about its target.”
After a close analysis of every memorable insult on the show, it’s possible to derive a second-order rule that predicts just how eloquent a given Succession character will be:
Eloquence = [IQ x (Power Ranking)²] / Age
Start with Logan Roy, the psychotic patriarch played by Brian Cox. He built a multibillion dollar empire, so his IQ is certainly high. This intelligence ought to translate to eloquence — but he’s unquestionably the top banana with a Power Ranking of 1 (a status confirmed by any number of publications) and he’s also 80 years old. The result, as per this Reddit fan, is a verbal arsenal of f-bombs, though his “ability to imbue the words ‘fuck off’ with so much diversity of feeling and freshness is truly remarkable.”
Oldest son Connor (Alan Ruck) is weak but dumb; heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is occasionally sharp but too close to the prize to talk pretty. Daughter Shiv is appropriately named for a weapon and constantly maneuvering. But the further down the hierarchy you go, the better the results. Even as the character IQ drops, a reduction in both status and age equals more opportunity for eloquence.
And so you have Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), the youngest son (low denominator) with no chance at the throne (high numerator) who can chide his brother for “scanning for influence like some yuppie robocop” and recall that his father “didn’t apologize when he hit our au pair with his car. It was her fault for being too short, he said.”
And future brother-in-law Tom Wambsgans, who tosses off lines like “Canada? With the health care and the ennui?” and “He looks waxy, like an unshaven candle.”
Tom focusses most of his attention on Cousin Greg, the youngest and least powerful member of the inner circle, ripping him apart for his non-0.01% lifestyle that consists of enjoying cajun chicken linguini and wearing boat shoes with a suit. “Forgive me, but are we talking to each other on the poop deck of a majestic schooner?” Tom says of the latter infraction. “Is the salty brine stinging my weather-beaten face? No?”
Greg the Egg, to his credit, seems to be working the eloquence equation backwards. Talk less, connive more. The math suggests this is how he’ll end up running Waystar Royco. In a show built on brilliant use of language, the most successful characters keep their mouths shut. As Kendall observes, words are “just, what? Nothing. Complicated air flow.”
Quick quips; lightning
“It seldom pays to be rude. It never pays to be only half-rude.”
— Norman Douglas
“I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves”
— Oscar Wilde
“Money doesn’t talk, it swears. ”
— Bob Dylan
Get Wit Quick No. 113 only curses in italics. If we can’t outlaw billionaires, at least make them entertain us — or is that an anatomical impossibility? Season 3 of Succession is out in October, but my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is out now. You do the math! You can’t make a Tomlette without tapping a few ❤️ s.